Since 2016, AHI has been on an amazing winning streak.
The soulful, folk-pop singer-songwriter, born Akinoah H. Izarh (he goes by his initials, AHI, pronounced “I”), initially found his way onto a Spotify Top 50 folk playlist in 2016. Then in 2017, he won the Singer-Songwriter/Folk Award from the Canadian Songwriting Competition, and the Stingray Rising Star Award (for his song “Ol’ Sweet Day”) at the Folk Music Ontario (FMO) conference. The following year, he won the FMO’s Recording Artist of the Year Award. Early in 2018, he was invited to play the prestigious NPR Tiny Desk Concert for National Public Radio, broadcast across the U.S. Since then, he’s been signed to the U.S.-based record label Thirty Tigers (home of songwriters extraordinaire Jason Isbell, Patty Griffin, and Sturgill Simpson, among others). He was also signed to a booking agency, Paradigm Talent, which arranged for him to open a live show for legendary soul singer Mavis Staples at Toronto’s Massey Hall. He recently performed “Made It Home” live on the national U.S. television show CBS This Morning. And he’s had his current album In Our Time submitted for consideration at the Grammy Awards. As AHI sings on the album’s opening song, “Breakin’ Ground”: “Since the blessings started pouring down / See, I’m already losing count.”
“When I wrote that, I probably wasn’t in as optimistic a situation” says AHI. “I was probably struggling, probably having a hard time in the music industry. But you’ve still gotta write those things that inspire you… You know it’s gonna come. I always knew, in my career, that when it rains, it’s gonna pour. I always had that mind-state: It’s gonna happen, and when it happens, it’s gonna happen fast.”
It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. AHI is so guileless, genuine, and charming, — whether in his songs, onstage, or in his personal interactions with listeners, and without being too saccharine about it – that he seems to win over everybody he encounters. He’s so unpretentious that his choice for an interview location is a Tim Hortons in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of Toronto, near where he lives.
AHI followed a unique path toward his career in music. Before he was earning a living with it, he was something of a traveler, backpacking everywhere from Ethiopia to Trinidad to Thunder Bay. It was in a small town outside of the latter, in a now-shuttered truck stop, where he broke down – then realized his life’s destiny. “It was a revelatory experience,” he says, “at that moment, where I came to grips with the fact that I’m gonna do music for the rest of my life. I was dabbling in music, playing around with it, I wasn’t taking it seriously. I wanted to travel the world. I was soul-searching. Having that breakdown moment just changed my life… [to] pushing forward, and focusing on what you can accomplish.”
“I always knew, in my career, that when it rains, it’s gonna pour.”
Propelled by his acoustic guitar, distinctively raspy voice, and an occasional “whoa-oh” choral chant, or string quartet, AHI’s music on In Our Time celebrates life’s joys, even as it acknowledges the daily struggles. He writes songs about moving forward with firm conviction (“Breakin’ Ground,” “Straight Ahead”); about social conscience rooted in daily experience, and the need to stand up for equal rights and justice (“We Want Enough,” “In Our Time”); and about how love and family are worth more than gold (“Made It Home,” “Five Butterflies”).
Family is crucial. “Every time I back-packed, the theme that I found was, stay put, go back home,” says AHI. “Stop searching, the answers are on the inside… That was always the re-occurring message that I got. So home will always be an important thing to me. Whatever home means to different people, I know we all have some sense of home. Or some sense of not having home.”
Trying to maintain his own home – with his wife/co-manager Ashaten, and their three young, home-schooled children – AHI is starting to navigate the process of touring without them. On the road at his level, bringing them along would erase any of the living that he’d make to sustain the family after the tour ends. So he’s feeling out the situation for now.
Happily, he can take the family along for songwriting trips, and write mostly at home. “I have a book of titles,” he says of his writing process. “One day I went through the dictionary and I wrote every word that I thought sounded cool. On my computer, I have a folder of, just, lines. I’ll just write a line, or a sentence that sounds cool. I have another folder of melodies, and I dream a lot of melodies. At some point, some of these things should all fit together somehow. Mainly, I’ll pick up my guitar and play… If I have a melody, I‘ll try to figure out where it is on the guitar. Or I‘ll start strumming my guitar and something will just come out. It used to be rare for me to have lyrics, and then write music to them, but now I’m more open to doing it that way.”
Working in Nashville changed his songwriting perspective, too. “I always say, before going to Nashville I was writing songs, but after coming back from Nashville, I became a songwriter… [They write with] efficiency, creativity, everybody’s working fast, go-go-go, but they’re also creative, and willing to try things… and it’s not just country. Every person who goes, and plays on country albums, has a passion for some other kind of music.”
Having already accomplished so much, what’s next for AHI? In early 2019, he’ll be the opening act for Lauren Daigle and Scott Mulvahill, on a national tour of soft-seat theatres across America. Like the song says, he’s still breakin’ ground.